By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Missoula may be several months away from accepting its first refugees, but Soft Landing Missoula and other community groups are already working to ensure their arrival and integration goes smoothly.
Last week, the International Rescue Committee approved Soft Landing’s request – one that came with city and county support – to reopen a refugee resettlement office in Missoula.
Mary Poole, founder of Soft Landing, said much of the groundwork has been set for the eventual arrival of up to 100 refugees a year.
“We’ve already put a lot of work into meeting with community leaders, facilities and organizations that will directly be interacting with refugees,” said Poole. “We’ve done a lot of that work and will continue to do that in correlation with the IRC.”
Poole said Soft Landing is still a month or more away from opening the resettlement office. The organization and its backers are working to cover the basics, from housing to employment.
Supporters also are working with Missoula County Public Schools to ensure the district has the needed resources to accommodate any new students. MCPS already offers English as a Second Language for students, just as the Emily Dickinson Lifelong Learning Center does for adults.
“A lot of these programs already exist in our community, and we’ll be looking to support those programs that are already here,” Poole said. “We know the education and outreach is going to be really important, and it’s something that we really want to focus on.”
Poole said the U.S. accepts refugees from roughly 61 countries. Last year, the top five nationalities resettled in the U.S. as refugees came from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bhutan.
The nine volunteer agencies that work with the U.S. State Department meet weekly to review the list of vetted refugees for placement. Poole said Missoula is better suited for certain populations due to existing languages and other factors.
The IRC decides who is resettled in Missoula.
“The volunteer agencies meet weekly with the State Department to look at what community works best for the refugee,” Poole said. “Each case is evaluated for where a refugee would best thrive. Once we do know, we’ll look to do some cultural education around the country they’re fleeing.”
Poole was pushed to action one night in September during a book club meeting. It was then when members of the club saw images of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, washed up dead on a Turkish beach.
She and other supporters spent the past six months working with the IRC to reopen a resettlement office in Missoula. The agency approved the action last week after months of review and bouts of local controversy.
Poole described the process as a learning experience.
“I don’t think we’ve had any disappointments, though there have been plenty of mistakes made by me,” she said. “One of those was just around language. I posted something on our Facebook page I thought was funny. It ended up aggravating and inflaming the argument. I don’t want to be that inflammatory person. I want to be the one to help build bridges.”
The debates that have surfaced locally have at times been fiery and filled with inflammatory rhetoric. Poole said Soft Landing has learned to funnel the passion into closing the divide that separates polarized points of view.
She said the organization hopes to give value to all voices and work as a community to welcome refugees fleeing violence and persecution, no matter where they’re from.
“I’ve had the private honor to call some of the people who opposed what we’re doing a friend,” Poole said. “That’s been an enriching experience for me.”
Other cities in the state have contacted Soft Landing hoping to follow suit, including organizers in Helena and Bozeman. As for Missoula, Poole said, the community has stepped up to help resolve a pressing global challenge, even if the answers don’t come easily.
“We’re not talking about hundreds of refugees being placed here once,” she said. “We’re talking about a few families at a time. We’ll have the flexibility and time to figure out what the needs are, and we definitely have the excitement in our community to do this.”